Emily Lakdawalla • Nov 15, 2011
Book Review: A More Perfect Heaven, by Dava Sobel
As with her previous two books Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel draws heavily on primary sources for her latest book, A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. With lengthy quotes from personal letters and contemporary records, Sobel paints a picture in words of the life and times of a man whose work literally produced a revolution, changing the static, immovable Earth to one that spun and revolved around the Sun at the center of the cosmos.
Sobel's work is challenging, because the very few extant letters that are known to have been written by Copernicus (only 17 of them) do not provide quite enough for her to establish much empathy between the reader and the central characters. The letters that do exist are mostly very formal. By providing a lot of historical context, Sobel shows how important a role the political and religious upheavals of Copernicus' time played in to his decision to delay publishing his work until close to the end of his life. Copernicus was a contemporary of Luther, so his life played out against the backdrop of religious revolution. Georg Rheticus, who assisted the Catholic Copernicus in preparing On the Revolutions for eventual publication, was a young Lutheran, yet the book was eventually dedicated to the Pope. It's a fascinating story but also drier and less emotional, with more Machiavellian princes in various important roles, than Sobel's previous books.
The book's formal and occasionally dry story is interrupted at the moment that Rheticus appears on Copernicus' doorstep. In between Part One, in which we see how Copernicus came to his new understanding of the cosmos, and Part Three, in which we see how his work was finally published just before his death, there is a two-act play dramatizing the crucial few months in which Rheticus and Copernicus collaborated. It's an unusual device that I must admit I viewed rather skeptically as I approached the book, but I found that the play succeeded. Although Sobel based the play on some established facts, it's clearly a work of historical fiction, with wholly invented dialogue and character voices. The device provides her with a way to speculate about what sorts of characters these men and women were, driven by what sorts of emotions. At the same time, the play is clearly, structurally separate from the more formally correct history that bookends it. And I must say that, having encountered the play, I found myself much more empathetic to the history's characters in Part Three than I had been in Part One.
I should note that I didn't actually read this book; I listened to it in its audiobook format while driving to and from Goldstone. I don't customarily listen to audiobooks so I can't compare it to other productions but I did think this one was very good. The narrator's enunciation was crisp and clear across all of the Latinate words and eastern European surnames and place names. More importantly, when it came time for the play, they cast the six characters with six different actors with distinctive voices, with stage direction read by the book's narrator, making the action very easy to follow. I did find the narration too slow, but speeding it up by a factor of 1.5 solved that problem neatly.A More Perfect Heaven places Copernicus' life into a historical context that I hadn't appreciated before. To whom would I recommend it? I'm sure people interested in the history of science would enjoy it, but beyond that, I think people interested in European history at the beginning of the Reformation would find in this story a new and illuminating angle. It is, however, not as accessible as either Galileo's Daughter or Longitude. And my editor has asked me to warn parents that there are some adult themes discussed in the book, never very explicit but most prominent in the action of the play. She said it should probably have a PG-13 rating. I wouldn't give it to a kid under 13 anyway; but thinking back to myself as a high school senior science nerd taking modern European history, it would certainly have added dimension to my study of a subject that I found tedious. To me, history was all about various rich princes squabbling like children, and I had a hard time understanding why I should care. Copernicus' story, set against the backdrop of the machinations in Europe in the beginning of the 16th century, would have given me reason to pay attention!
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